If you tune in to a special airing of "Restaurant: Impossible" on Food Network this Sunday and see two chefs with ties to Lexus alongside muscle-bound host Robert Irvine, it won't be a coincidence. Lexus helped pay the production costs for the episode, which was not part of the show's normal season and would not have existed without the automaker.
"Restaurant Impossible" sends Chef Robert Irvine to restaurants in dire straits, challenged to turn things around with just two days and $10,000. The upcoming episode will see Mr. Irvine joined by Michael Chiarello and Michelle Bernstein, celebrity chefs working with Lexus, on a trip to Joplin, Mo., which was decimated by tornadoes in May 2011. The culinary experts will help the Joplin Boys & Girls Club create a thank-you meal for 1,000 volunteers and friends.
The debut of the episode offers a new twist on the emerging trend of marketers attempting to pay for actual TV programming at an earlier and more fundamental stage than through standard product-placement deals or old-fashioned TV commercials.
"That line between content provider and marketer is a little bit blurry," said Karen Grinthal, senior VP-ad sales at Food Network and sibling outlet Cooking Channel, both part of Scripps Networks Interactive.
Indeed, in recent years, advertisers have launched a few content pieces aimed not only at entertaining viewers but at making them buy particular goods and services. In 2010, NBC allowed Procter & Gamble and Walmart to run two advertiser-funded family films: "Secrets of the Mountain" and "The Jensen Project," which aimed to prod viewers to buy P&G products available at the retail chain.
And in 2011, Scripps altered its policy regarding the paid placement of product in its instructional programming when it ran "From The Kitchens Of" on Cooking Channel. The program, which wasn't part of Cooking Channel's regular lineup, featured employees of sponsors such as General Mills' Pillsbury and Kellogg Co.'s Rice Krispies making recipes using the goods in question in the marketer's own test kitchens. The advertiser paid 50% of the cost of the episode in which their chefs and goods appeared.
Those programs were created with the advertiser from the start. But the holiday-themed special of "Restaurant: Impossible" would appear to mark one of the first times in recent memory an existing series has been utilized for the practice. (Of course, many shows in TV's earliest days were produced by the main sponsor.)
Lexus's main reason for choosing this idea, said Ms. Grinthal, was because it uses a "culinary council" of sorts to reach out to core consumers. Scripps' research has shown that auto consumers interested in luxury brands enjoy cooking and culinary activity, she said, making a partnership with Lexus seem appropriate. The parties involved -- Food Network, Lexus and the automaker's Team One agency -- "worked together to come up with content that would expand their engagement with consumers through that show." Lexus, which is part of Toyota Motor Sales, and Team One executives were not immediately available for comment.
Food Network retained creative control over the episode, Ms. Grinthal said, and would be able to use the episode in any kind of "aftermarket" activity -- such as sales of the episodes to another network or for DVD release. Lexus would be able to use the special show for internal and promotional purposes, she suggested. She declined to comment on the amount of money Lexus contributed for the episode's production.
Lexus's buy is part of a larger package that includes content in Food Network Magazine, a series of web videos on FoodNetwork.com and cross-promotion both on-air and online. What's more, Lexus's investment in the episode will help it gain placement in the fifth and sixth season of the regular "Restaurant: Impossible" series.
Ms. Grinthal believes similar efforts will show up on Food Network in the not-too-distant future. "A number" of discussions regarding similar ideas are "ongoing," she said, with another deal expected to debut on air in the first quarter of 2013.